The Right of Rebellion

John Kaag

American Philosophy

“A Reply to Filmer”

The binding was brittle and faded, but Carol could still make out the words. We’d spent the last three years scouring the library for rare volumes, but we’d missed this one, the rarest.

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Our oversight was understandable, if not excusable. The book was small, just the size of a postcard, and the library was large, twice the size of our apartment in Boston, lit by a small handful of dusty Tiffany lamps and naked light bulbs that hung from the ceiling. William Ernest Hocking, the original owner, knew where his books were, all ten thousand of them. He was a philosopher, one of the best—Harvard’s Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity—and could negotiate his collection of Plato, Hegel, and Kant with his eyes closed. But when he died in 1966, the Hocking family had resolved, out of respect, to leave the library largely untouched and unlit, which meant that small, priceless books could easily disappear. The library, built by Hocking himself from New Hampshire granite, was cool and moist—the perfect breeding ground for fungus. For half a century dust and mold had slowly accumulated in this building full of books, walking distance to a freestanding mansion, hidden in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Carol and I had come to the estate in 2009 as fellow philosophy professors interested in helping the Hockings save what remained of the collection. Much remained: 356 first editions from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries from some of the true giants of Western philosophy—Descartes, Hobbes, Kant, Mill, Hegel. Over the course of three years, we’d spent weeks at Hocking’s desk, transcribing marginalia and cataloging these books, many of them owned by Hocking’s more famous teachers at Harvard, Josiah Royce and William James. Hocking was the last figure in what is usually known as “classical American philosophy,” a group of nineteenth-century thinkers who attempted to embody Ralph Waldo Emerson’s instruction in “Self-Reliance” that “a man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages.”

Emerson had provided the permission to deviate from the ideals and conventions of European philosophy and, more particularly, to rethink the meaning of human freedom. Hocking and his teachers spent their careers considering the limits of human liberty, but most of them came to the position, also shared by Emerson, that true freedom, the type that was the most meaningful for human beings, was realized in the intimate presence of others. This freedom was not mere freedom from constraint, but “freedom to and with.” The selves that we rely upon are always embedded in wider circles of experience, and our actions always compensate, literally “weigh against,” the world beyond us. In truth, the world is not beyond us, but rather forever in contact. American philosophers like Hocking were interested in the tenuous dance between liberty and togetherness. At Hocking’s desk Carol and I had fallen in love with this philosophy—and each other—and, all the while, the nondescript “A Reply to Filmer” had been hiding right behind us, wedged between two larger volumes on a bottom shelf.

In hindsight, I’m glad it was so easy to miss. Larger, flashier volumes (the first edition King James Bible from 1616 and the first edition of Descartes’s Discourse on Method from 1637, for example) had already been stolen. Hundreds of books had been taken in 2007 and only retrieved after an FBI manhunt. But “A Reply to Filmer” had remained, tucked away in darkness.

Carol pulled the slim volume from the bottom shelf, wiped off the grime, and gingerly opened the front cover, which promptly fell off in her hands. First edition: 1690. Published anonymously. The bindings were badly damaged, but the frontispiece was still, somehow, intact.

Robert Filmer was born in 1588 at East Sutton, a parish in Kent, England. He was the eldest, and therefore most blessed, of eighteen aristocratic children. At the age of sixteen he was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge, and attended for a time, but like so many young men from the upper class, he had better things to do than graduate. Upon not graduating, he was immediately granted a place in Lincoln’s Inn, the most prestigious of the four “Inns of Court” in London where lawyers are called to the bar. He was called in 1613, but probably never practiced the law at all. Instead, he purchased the porter’s lodge at Westminster Abby for his city dwelling, living there for much of his early adulthood.

When Charles I came to power, one of his first acts was to knight Filmer, who returned the favor by defending the crown with his pen for the rest of his life. In the 1620s, as many of his countrymen began to militate against unwarranted privilege and pretense, he wrote Patriarcha, a systematic defense of the divine right of kings. It didn’t matter if Charles I stammered, or spent prodigally, or ignored the needs of the common people; what mattered, at the end of the day, was that he was king, and that God said so. Patriarcha was published in 1680, many years after Filmer’s death, but it circulated widely in manuscript form when the Civil War broke out in 1642 and earned him the reputation as the most vocal apologist for the monarchy.

Filmer, like his more famous contemporary Thomas Hobbes, was a political absolutist, meaning that he argued kings should wield unqualified power over their subjects, and those who did not—for example, those who willingly relinquished power to Parliament—invited political dissent. Today, scholars are inclined to interpret the British Civil War and the execution of Charles I in 1649 as a result of monarchical overreach, but Filmer and Hobbes saw things differently: civil war was the consequence of a sovereign being too weak.

As the Royalist cause began to decline in the mid-1640s, Hobbes was forced to flee to Paris. In France, surrounded by rationalists like Descartes, Hobbes began to formulate a rational justification for absolute sovereignty, an argument that became the core of his Leviathan when published in 1651.

Filmer’s experience in the British Civil War was different than Hobbes’s. Filmer didn’t get to flee to France. Instead, his country estate in Kent was ransacked nearly a dozen times by Parliamentarians, or “Roundheads,” and, in 1650, the sixty-two-year-old Filmer was imprisoned in Leeds Castle. The castle has often been called “Queen of Castles,” and it is truly lovely, but Filmer was not impressed. His jailors were not the rational agents that Hobbes described, but rather petulant children in need of a good spanking. And so he argued for a strict father to reassert himself. Whereas Hobbes avoided religious arguments, Filmer relied on them almost exclusively. The king, descended directly from Adam, was literally the father of his subjects. Filmer was happy enough to echo the words from Exodus: “Whoever strikes his father . . . shall be put to death.”

For patriarchalists like Filmer, the beheading of Charles I was tantamount to the death of God. Filmer died in 1653 and never got to see the political resurrection of the monarchy in England, but when the Restoration came to fruition in 1661 with the coronation of Charles II, it was regarded by many as an act of divine intervention. The era that ensued was the most confusing, tumultuous time in modern political philosophy. Filmer’s position held sway for decades, motivating James II, who succeeded Charles II, to make a bid, once again, for absolute power in 1687. Thinkers who objected to the monarchy were now forced to flee, and returned only after the Glorious Revolution, when British Parlimentarians united with William of Orange to overthrow James II.

John Locke, arguably the founder of political liberalism, was one of the thinkers forced to flee. Upon his return, Locke helped draft the English Bill of Rights. In the months that followed, Locke penned two philosophical treatises, which served as the theoretical grounding for the Bill of Rights but also, more famously, for modern liberal democracy as a whole. Today it is easy and uncontroversial to hate Filmer. He represents what American philosophers of the nineteenth century spent their lives rejecting: nepotism, blind acceptance of authority, religious fanaticism, and political elitism based on economic inequality. Civilization founded on absolute political authority is not a civilization worth defending or even preserving. This most basic of American beliefs is so widely accepted that it is difficult to remember that any reply to Filmer was, in 1690, painfully controversial. When Locke first penned his famous Two Treatise on Government, he had to do so carefully, anonymously, and tuck it in a nondescript binding, with a nondescript title: “A Reply to Filmer.”

I looked up for a moment, out the window, across the valley. Venus—the evening star, Hesperos—was just beginning to show itself in the evening sky. And then I returned to our broken book.

“Holy shit,” Carol murmured, “did I just break that?” I tried to remind her that it was undoubtedly already broken, that bindings are fragile, but she wasn’t listening. To a dyed-in-the-wool philosopher like Carol, this might as well have been Moses and the tablets: pure sacrilege. I could understand her abhorrence. The book was, by any standard, rare. I’d seen one, but many years ago, at the Smithsonian, under an inch and a half of tamperproof glass. In perfect condition, the asking price at Sotheby’s would start at $80,000. Start. But it wasn’t in perfect condition anymore—not even close.

A quick reminder: The “shot heard round the world,” which initiated the American Revolution, was fired in the literal backyard of Emerson’s grandfather, in Concord, Massachusetts. The war, the real reply to Filmer, killed fifty thousand people, including Emerson’s father, when little Waldo was seven. The philosophical project of American Transcendentalism was to make good on an “intellectual declaration of independence” and thereby deepen the freedom that had been secured by military sacrifice. “I heartily accept the motto,” Thoreau writes in “Civil Disobedience,” “that government is best which governs least’; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe—‘That government is best which governs not at all.’” Thoreau is harkening back to the American founding, to the gilded and often misquoted words of Jefferson. Usually the halcyon story of American independence starts here, on the sturdy foundations of national mythology. In fact, however, the origins of freedom can be found in a much more fragile, more human, place—in this battered, anonymous book that now lay in two pieces atop Hocking’s desk.

Terror, excitement, and disgust slowly faded into appreciation as the entire night slipped behind us and Venus—the morning star, Phosphoros—slowly moved across the sky. We sat at the desk for hours together, carefully paging through the founding of political liberalism. Perhaps it was better, more nourishing, more realistic, to read a book about freedom in such tattered condition. It was a reminder of how fragile our liberties can be and how difficult it is to protect them. And we had to move with breathless care.

Today, books come to us in the mail from Amazon: crisp, clean, and unloved. We are free to read—or better, to skim and scan—the books we choose, and free to buy replacements when we lose them. It’s tempting to think they are largely fungible. But they aren’t. A book is a record of an event, a human event as fragile and complex as life itself.

American Philosophy

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John Kaag is a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. He is the author of Idealism, Pragmatism, and Feminism (2011) and Thinking Through the Imagination: Aesthetics in Human Cognition (2014). His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and many other publications.

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